Sunday, October 15, 2017

Acts 18:1- 17 ”I Have Many People In This City “

18:1 Leaving Athens in Acts 17, Paul went on to Corinth in Acts 18. Corinth was situated about 80 kilometres west of Athens. If Athens was the intellectual centre of the ancient world, the city where Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus and Zeno had taught and made their respective marks, then Corinth was the commercial centre of Greece.

Corinth was situated close to the isthmus which joined mainland Greece to the Peloponnesian peninsula.  2 ports were nearby, Lechaeum on the Corinthian gulf to the west, and Cenchrea on the Saronic Gulf to the east.   Now Corinth was associated in everybody’s mind with immorality. Behind the city was a mountain called the Acro-Corinth. On top of this mountain, which had a flat top was the temple of Aphrodite (or Venus) – the goddess of love.  Apparently this temple had a thousand female slaves, who also roamed the city at night as prostitutes. The immorality was proverbial, so that the word ‘korinthiazomai’  to be Corinthian,  was coined to describe immorality.  

Paul first visited the city in AD 49 or 50, when Gallio was proconsul of Achaia [18:12].  With the help of Roman history we can thus date the book of Acts fairly accurately.    Paul lived   in Corinth for 18 months [18:11].

18:2,3 : In search of Christian company he first became acquainted with Priscilla and Aquila, a Jewish Christian couple.  We are told that they had come to Corinth from Rome, where Christians and Jews (the Romans did not know the difference)   had been banished by the emperor Claudius, because the gospel was apparently causing disturbances in that city. The gospel certainly   does not bring peace, but division, Jesus said (Matt. 10:34ff). To become a believer one will need to separate from, leave one’s dearest idols behind and follow Jesus in taking up the cross. At any rate, Paul found this couple in Corinth and they worked together as tentmakers[1]. Later they moved with Paul to Ephesus [18:18,19,26] .

18:4,5 : Paul’s preaching  follows  an  established  pattern[2], first  to the unconverted  Jews, and therefore he always went to the synagogue whenever there was one in a town or city.[3] Also note that Silas and Timothy re-joined Paul here, having last seen him in Berea.

18:6-8: Here we find once again, the habitual rejection of the gospel by the Jews.[4]  They generally refused, opposed and reviled Paul’s message. From this followed his resolve no longer to speak in the synagogues wherever he travelled [13:46; 18:6], although he did also go to the synagogue in Ephesus after this [18:19]. He said 'From now on I will go to the Gentiles'. Generally speaking then the mission began to focus more and more upon the gentiles and that has been the general trend to this day.

As Paul leaves the synagogue the irony is that he finds an open door to preach the gospel right next door to the synagogue in the home of Titius Justus. What is even more amazing is that despite all the opposition from that synagogue, the synagogue ruler, Crispus and his family believed and were baptized.[5]  

Those were the facts so far. And now consider this following text to which we want to pay closer attention:

18:9-10 :  The Lord spoke to Paul one night in Corinth: "Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and  do not be silent, for I am with you, and no-one  will attack you to  harm you,  for  I have many in this city  who are my people."  Some may be surprised at the thought that the apostle Paul shows signs of fear when we have been so used to see him walking where angels fear to tread. We see him time and again, unafraid of sharing the gospel of Jesus with people everywhere, often at great personal expense. We see him rejected and persecuted and persevering with joy. But here he appears to be afraid! Don't believe that Paul was a "spiritual superman". He too was weak and afraid at times. (Who is weak and I am not weak? 1 Cor. 11:29). Paul's ministry in Corinth provides a picture for us of the normal tension between discouragement and encouragement, fear and courage. It is something    that all God's people and we Pastors experience in the course of life and our ministries. It is the inevitable result of being a committed follower of Jesus. We need to retain a God-given perspective on this matter.

Why  might  Paul have been overcome with fear  at this point?

(i)         Learning from the immediate context: He had just come from Athens, where the going was tough. His mind and his energy were sapped by the many useless debates [17:21]. Add to this the fact, that only a few believed [17:34]. Add to this the ministry in Corinth, which was "tough going" [18:6] and you have a recipe for fear and discouragement. Nothing is more discouraging in the ministry than seeing little or no response  to the gospel and  seeing  professing Christians not  maturing in their faith.

(ii)        The experience of personal rejection in 18: 5- 6 must not be underestimated. It hurts to be rejected by the people you care for most. Paul loved his people, the Jews (Rom. 9:3; 10:1), and for all his boldness, Paul is not unaffected. His second letter to the Corinthians portrays much of his inner feelings on this subject.  God's servants are not untouched by rejections. Moses experienced the rejection of his people ; Joshua wanted to give up (Josh 7:7); Jeremiah felt  rejection keenly, and frequently wavers between discouragement and encouragement (eg. Jer.20:7-19).

(iii)       Paul really struggled with personal feelings of inadequacy.  The first letter to the Corinthians was written in response to his first visit. See his comments in  1 Cor. 2: 1 - 5 
“And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. 2 For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3 And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, 4 and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.  

Paul really believed that he was not equal to the task of preaching the gospel in these challenging situations. “Who is sufficient for these things?”  (2 Cor. 2:16), and he was acutely aware that he constantly needed God's enabling power   “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. (2 Cor.  12:9 )

Here then are a number of factors that cause discouragement: fatigue (Paul worked hard); lack of results and much resistance and personal feelings of inadequacy. This leads very naturally to fear. This all needs divine perspective. May God give us the grace in our times of discouragement, to see His hand at work and to hear His still small voice encouraging us on the way . 

ENCOURAGEMENT in the midst of discouragement:

One of the greatest and most comforting theological facts is that God never leaves nor forsakes His children. For this reason the Psalms have been of  such great comfort to Christians through the ages. Whenever   he sensed trouble  Luther  would say  to his congregation: “Come let us sing the 46th Psalm”.   God is with Paul in Corinth, even though Paul may feel fearful.  Let us see where we find  encouragement in this text:  

(i)         18: 1-5: Paul would be encouraged by the fellowship of his Christian friends - here Aquila and Priscilla ; Silas and Timothy. Christian friends are a great blessing!

(ii)        18: 6 - 8 :  Paul would be encouraged that there was some response. Despite the  fact that  relatively few people have come to faith, these are nevertheless trophies of grace and triumph.  The number of people converted in Athens may be pitifully insignificant, but the angels in heaven rejoice over every sinner that repents (Lk 15:7,10). If heaven rejoices over one sinner, shouldn't we?  And even though Paul is thrown out of the synagogue, when the Jews became abusive [18:6], there was an open door next to the synagogue in the home of  a man called Titius Justus.  We are told that the synagogue ruler Crispus and other Corinthians believed and were baptised [18:8].  Let us learn not to despise the day of small things.

(iii)       18:9 - 10: Paul received personal encouragement from God.

(iv)       18:12 - 17: God is at work in the world, ruling and overruling for the good of His church. The attack on Paul by jealous opponents of the gospel proved to be ineffective and the spread of the gospel  continued.

 SUMMARY :  

In the midst of our ordinary challenges that often produce fear, remember these things ...

1. The Gospel is ultimately in God’s hands. It is the gospel of God (Rom 1:1). And the main thing about the gospel is that God’s people are called to share it in all sorts of context. Paul shared it in the synagogue, in the market place and in many informal conversations along the way.  
  
2.  The Gospel will encounter resistance, but it will also find favour.  Expect resistance, such as we see here. But do not forget the wonderful truth is that God has a people everywhere – chosen from before the foundations of the earth (Eph. 1:4). You go and find them, but without using trickery and deceit. (2 Cor. 4:1-5).

3. Thank God for fellow gospel labourers - thank God for Aquila and Priscillas, for Timothys and Silas’s. They greatly encourage us.

4. Don’t labour where there is no promise. Although this needs to be thought through carefully (e.g. Jeremiah and Isaiah and most of the prophets laboured and persevered in unpromising circumstances), yet there came a time  when Paul had to move out of the synagogue and on to  the open door, next door to the synagogue,  where the church of God  had its birthplace in Corinth. There may come a time when our missionary focus must shift away from the unwilling to those that are willing to listen.  Currently this happens in many churches around the world, when the gospel preached by a pastor drives out hardened traditionalists and brings in new converts. Often, it forces evangelical preachers  to leave a hardened congregation and go ‘next door’ to those who will listen. 
  
5. Even though we may grow discouraged and fearful in the work of the gospel, we must not be overcome by fear. God’s gospel mission cannot fail.  All that the Father has given to His Son will come.  If we labour in a mission field in which little is happening, let us be content with that, and continue to be faithful to our calling. Don’t despise the day of small things.  (Zech. 4:10)






[1] from which is derived the modern Christian concept of tent-making, i.e. earning your living  from  a trade, while making it your main business to preach the gospel
[2] Acts 11:19
[3] Acts 13:5,14,43 ; 14:1; 17:1,10,17 ; 18:4,19
[4] Acts 13:45-52; 14:2-5,19; ( The Judaizers in 15:1ff and the Jerusalem council); 17:5-9,13 ; 18:6; 19:9 ; 20:3 ; 21:27-36 ; 23:12-22 ;
[5] No Corinthians were baptized by Paul himself except Crispus, Gaius and some of the household of Stephanas (1 Cor. 1:14, 16).  The household of  Stephanas were  "the first converts  in  Achaia" (1 Cor.  16:15). Gaius, was Paul's host the next time he visited the city (Rom. 16:23).

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Genesis 19: 23-29 “The Judgement upon Sodom and Gomorrah”

We have previously  considered, 
(i)  the announcement of the Judgement  of Sodom  and the intercession of Abraham  
(ii) the  personal revelation of the wickedness of Sodom to the 2 messengers of God,  and the rescue mission of Abraham’s nephew  Lot and  his family, and now...  
(iii) we shall consider the actual  destruction of  Sodom and  Gomorrah, along with the tragic incident  involving Lot’s wife.

There are few  more terrible and tragic accounts in the Bible  than this one. Martin Luther   confessed that he could not read the chapter without  being deeply affected (‘Es geht mir durch mein ganzes Herz’- this   story  pierces  my  whole heart). [1]  

23-25. As the sun had  risen, Lot came to Zoar, and  the LORD Yahweh rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah sulphur and fire from  the heavens…  Although only Sodom and Gomorrah are mentioned, we learn from Deut. 29:23[2]  that Admah and Zeboiim were involved as well.  We read of  this group of five towns  in Genesis 14:2,9  and it appears that of  these, Zoar the town to which Lot fled, alone was spared. These towns were communities under the judgment of God.  For many years the LORD God had been patient with them, restraining His anger, giving the people much time to repent and change their ways, but now the time had come when their sin had reached its full measure. This was all confirmed by the two angels of God who had come for that final investigation. It was also these angels  that  were instrumental  in getting  Lot and his family out of these cities of destruction. It was these that told Lot and his family in v.17,  “Escape for your life. Do not look back or stop anywhere in this valley. Escape to the hills, lest you be swept away.”

The  text tells us  that  the LORD – Yahweh rained  upon Sodom and Gomorrah sulphur and fire". Nothing points to a volcanic eruption. No volcanic lava remains are found  in the immediate vicinity.  Some have thought   that it was  a violent earthquake, referring to the word "overthrew"(vv. 25,29). There certainly is  seismic  activity in this  area of the Jordan Valley and the Dead Sea.  I understand that this is all part of the Rift Valley that runs from the  Middle  Near East down through east Africa into Kenya.    An earthquake occurred when Christ died (Matt. 27:51) and when Paul was in prison in Philippi (Acts 16:25).

However the best explanation given is that  the "fire" which rained down from heaven may have been lightning. The "sulphur" ( Brimstone) , common  in the Middle East  may have been connected to a huge explosion of highly inflammable materials, connected with the "bitumen pits"  mentioned  in   Gen. 14:10   causing a vast conflagration.  The towns were overthrown, and all their   inhabitants, and  even what grew on the ground vanished (v.25)
It happened! It is a fact. It was an act of God.  It happened in history,  like the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in  AD 79,  one of the most catastrophic volcanic eruptions in European history. Mount Vesuvius spewed forth a deadly cloud of  gasses to a height of 33 kilometres, ejecting molten rock, pulverized pumice and hot ash at the rate of 1.5 million tons per second, ultimately releasing 100,000 times the thermal energy of the Hiroshima-Nagasaki bombings.  Several Roman settlements were obliterated and buried underneath massive pyroclastic surges and ashfall deposits, the best known cities being Pompeii and Herculaneum.[3]

It happened  like the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake  which caused a  series of devastating tsunamis, killing 230,000–280,000 people in 14 countries, and swamping coastal communities with waves up to 30 metres  high. It was one of the deadliest disasters in recorded history. Indonesia was the hardest-hit country, followed by Sri Lanka, India, and Thailand. It is the third-largest earthquake ever recorded.  
And it happened like the 2011 Japan earthquake, the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in Japan, and the fourth most powerful earthquake in the world, since modern record-keeping began in 1900. The earthquake triggered powerful tsunami waves that reached heights of up to 40.5 metres.   Almost 16 000 people died, apart from huge damage to homes and infrastructure.  The tsunami also caused a nuclear accident at the Fukushima power plant.  The World Bank's estimated economic cost was US$235 billion, making it the costliest natural disaster in history.[4]

And all these tell the same story.  They are acts of God. God is sending temporary judgments  into this fallen world, reminding  the world frequently that  the world as we know it  will  have a  catastrophic ending , followed  by a general resurrection and  a Great White Throne  judgment (Rev. 20:11-15).  Sodom is a foretaste of that day, and these  so called natural disasters, and catastrophes , according to Jesus  are but the beginnings of the birthpains. (Matt. 24:8)  

V. 26.  But Lot’s wife, behind him  looked back, and she became a pillar of salt. What did the angel of God say in v. 17?  “Don’t look back!”, and yet  she did  (v.26).  Here she  is.  She is fleeing with her husband and her daughters but her  heart was in Sodom. She had left Sodom, but Sodom was still in her heart. If she had her way she would have stayed behind like her prospective sons in law. The world was in her heart, and her heart was in the world. In this state she lived, and in this state she died. She followed, not because of personal conviction. She followed because it was her duty to follow her husband.  Oh how many there are in our churches like that.   There are so many people in the world that follow Christ out of duty and not out of delight.  You may have spiritual advantages of every description. You may belong to a good family of Christians. You may be in a church where  the Word of God is faithfully proclaimed and where many are devoted to following the Lord Jesus.   All this may be, and yet you yourself may remain without a true desire to love and follow Christ.  And so when  ‘push comes to shove’, and  when you are called by Jesus  to  make choices that  take you away from the world, taking steps like Christian in Pilgrims Progress towards heaven, you look back  and wish that you  could  enjoy  more of this Sodom.   

Now remember the words of the Lord Jesus in  Luke  17:28-33 . In that context, with reference to the days of Lot, He says, “Remember Lot’s wife.” ….whoever seeks to preserve his life (in Sodom) will lose it, but whoever loses his life (to Christ)  will  keep  it” (v.33). 
 
"She looked back.”  This might seem like a small insignificant thing, but it spoke volumes of what really mattered to her. Little things will often show the state of a man’s heart and mind more accurately than great ones. Little symptoms are often the signs of a deadly disease. Cancer starts with a little cell.  A virus and bacteria are invisible to the naked eye. But they have powerful effects. This backward look showed what was first in her life. 

So many have shown promise in spiritual matters. They started well. They followed the Lord Jesus zealously for a while, but when it really mattered, they loved the world more than Jesus. They followed Him no longer (John 6:66). Their love grew cold (Rev.  2:1-7). They became lukewarm  (Rev. 3 :14-22). They have tasted of the goodness of the  word of God and  the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away….” (Hebr. 6:5,6).   Remember Lot’s wife, says Jesus! She is  a warning  to all who do not make a clear-cut break with the world.  

Vv.27, 28. Abraham goes back to the place where he had "stood before the LORD Yahweh"- where he had interceded for Sodom  and Gomorrah. What he saw down below in the valley must have been gut wrenching.   He saw vast volumes of smoke rising from in all the land of the valley . If you remember Operation Desert Storm (17 January 1991 – 28 February 1991)  the response   to Iraq's invasion and annexation of Kuwait  on 2nd   August 1990 and the burning oilfields of Kuwait , then you will get an idea  of what Abraham  would have seen here.

The expression used here, literally translated here as  "smoke of the earth"[5], seems to suggest that the very ground burned.  Again,  this points to  the possibility that  oil deposits near the surface may have been ignited to cause  this  enormous conflagration.

V.29. “So it was that when God  destroyed the cities of the valley, God remembered Abraham and sent Lot  out of the midst of the overthrow when he overthrew  the cities in which Lot had lived”. The primary thought of the verse is: God remembered Lot for Abraham’s sake. Abraham’s prayer, although it was not answered in the way he had wished, resulted nevertheless   in Lot’s preservation.  But Lot was not delivered for his own sake but for Abraham’s. "The  prayer of a  righteous person has great power as it is working.” (James 5:16)  

REVIEW  AND APPLICATION
This text which we have considered is no fairy tale, and Luther’s reaction to it, should be ours. It is a terrible thing to see sinners falling into the hands of an angry God.  This is a reminder of the final judgment.  It appears that people in our day are just as cynical and unbelieving about the fact of that coming judgment, just as they were in the days of Noah. Jesus said so! (Lk 17:26). And in all this we must remember that God is not slow to judge.   “He is patient… not wishing anyone to perish, but that all should reach repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9)

The  lesson of Lot’s wife  is  a particular warning for those that associate  with Jesus and His church , but  who remain fundamentally attached to this world . In the  NT she is a standing warning against worldliness. Jesus will tell you,   “remember Lot's wife”!  

Abraham, the intercessor, reminds  us  that Christians have a duty to pray  for  their   world and to be exercised over its ungodliness, whilst at the same time  pleading with God for His mercy. There is a great promise here for those of us  with unconverted families. God hears our prayer  for their sake. We are told that God spared Lot because of Abraham's intercession.

One last thing : Jesus said  to His disciples in Matt 10: 14-15 , "And if  anyone will  not receive you, or listen to  your words,  shake the dust from your feet when you leave that house or town. Truly I say to you, it will be more bearable in the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town." Jesus is saying that those who reject the gospel message are liable to a more intense judgment than Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgement.

And where will you be in that  day? Where is your heart rooted? Remember  Lot’s wife. She had experienced many spiritual privileges, but  ultimately  she would  experience the same judgment as  did the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah. She was so  close  to the gates of Zoar and yet so far away.

THE LORD’ SUPPER
An invitation  to come to  Jesus  your Zoar, your Redeemer,  your   Deliverer, the One who has  facilitated  your great escape.  

Monday, October 2, 2017

Acts 17:16- 34 ”Preaching The Gospel To A People Who Think They Know It All!“

This passage has fascinated me for a long time. I am always  impressed by the zeal and courage of this man, Paul. Driven from the city of Thessalonica, by an unruly mob - the same threatening to happen in Berea, Paul goes down to Athens (minus Silas and Timothy) and probably without  Luke. By himself "he takes on" the city of Athens – which he describes as  a city  full of idols.

What Paul saw in Athens: (v. 16)

Athens was by all accounts  an impressive city. It had once been the intellectual centre of the ancient world. Men like Plato and Socrates made their mark there - and their influence lasts until this day! Athens had beautiful buildings(e.g. of which  the Parthenon still stands).There were found innumerable temples and shrines and statues to every conceivable god under the sun. Some said,"it was a veritable forest of idols". Another said that "there were more gods in Athens, than in all the rest of the country". Yet another said that "it was easier to find a god there than a man."  There were images of Apollos (the city's patron god), Jupiter, Venus, Mercury, Bacchus, Neptune, Diana, Aesculapius - to mention but a few famous ones. All these statue-gods looked very impressive and beautiful. They were not simply made of stone and brass, but overlaid  with gold, and made of  ivory, silver and marble - elegantly fashioned by the finest Greek sculptors.

Such fine art and elegance and majesty is impressive! I have seen some displays of  Greek art in Berlin and London and works of art in Europe.  And as far  buildings  and architecture  are concerned, some of Europe’s cathedrals are truly awe inspiring. The sheer magnitude and beauty of these buildings is impressive and one can feel quite moved  and in a funny sort of way,  ‘religious’, as one beholds just the sheer beauty and majesty of these hand fashioned buildings and statutes and is overawed by them.

When Paul had seen all these things, what  impression did this make upon him? We read in v. 16 that "his spirit  was provoked within him  as he saw that the city was full of idols". The Greek word for being provoked (ESV) /distressed (NIV) is "paroxyno", from which we get the medical term "paroxysm" – having a seizure or epileptic fit. Paul then (if you like) had a quiet fit as he walked through the city  filled with so many  idols.

What many would have regarded as a great centre of culture, religion and learning, Paul regarded as ‘rank and file’ idolatry.  Was Paul blind to aesthetic beauty and was he deaf to the philosophical eloquence and thought forms of the people of Athens? No!  Paul, sees further than aesthetics and human wisdom.  He looks at this city not through human eyes but through God's eyes. He looks at it with a biblical world view and with a renewed mind (Rom. 12:1,2).   He was provoked, not because he was a snob, or because he felt superior to the Athenians, or   because his culture clashed with theirs. No, Paul's feelings ran much deeper. He was provoked because he knew that the God who made the heavens and the earth abhorred idols.  Idols are man’s attempt to substitute  the one, true God, Creator  of  the world and all its people (Psalm 24:1; 89:11)  with man-made  creations and thoughts.  And so it was in Athens. Here was a people which God had made in His image (minus the sin). What were they doing?  They were giving glory to created things,  dumb idols,  and  their own human wisdom and Paul grieved, as he saw human beings so trapped  in themselves  and  depraved as to be giving idols the honour and glory which was due to the One, Living, True God alone. 

Can you feel something of the heart of this apostle?

What Paul did in Athens (vv. 17 - 21)

Although Paul saw and felt these things, he did not withdraw into his shell, or locked himself up in a hotel room in Athens. What did he do? He did what he always did.  He preached the gospel, and as we see it here, he preached it to three different groups in the city of Athens:

(i) As was his habit, he always went to the synagogue , where he would reason with Jews and God fearing Greeks. (v.17a) 
(iii) Paul preached  by way of  street evangelism, in the market place with those who happened to be there. (v.17b) 
(iii) He preached to a group of the intellectual elite - which was  made up of  different philosophers - Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. We will focus on this event. How do you speak  to ‘know it all', philosopher  type people?  (vv18-34) 

Let us firstly consider the philosophical schools  mentioned here in verse 18 :  

The Epicureans, deriving their name  from  the philosopher Epicurus [341 - 270 B.C] essentially  had a materialistic world view. For them the gods were far removed and even non- existent. If they did in fact exist, they had no effect on the world. And so, their philosophy was basically expressed in 'pleasure seeking'. It is the most logical philosophy  to have when there is no God and no moral accountability in the Universe. So  they figured that what gave ultimate meaning in life was to  live  this life to the maximum', and so their motto/ philosophy  was, "eat , drink and be  merry , for tomorrow we die" (cf. 1 Cor. 15:32) . It is in fact a  very common way of thinking today. We are very much a pleasure centered age. Instead of great cathedrals, we build great sport stadiums, entertainment parks and shopping malls.

Stoicism. According to  this philosophical school its teachings, as social beings, the path to happiness for humans is found in accepting this moment as it presents itself, by not allowing ourselves to be controlled by our desire for pleasure or our fear of pain, by using our minds to understand the world around us and to do our part in nature's plan, and by working together and treating others in a fair and just manner. [1]  The philosopher Zeno [340 - 265 BC] was representative of this school.

So,  Paul reasoned with people  such as  this because he was distressed, and he wanted them to know the truth.  But  how do you speak to people of a city, so full of idols and so full of their own ideas about the gospel? How do you communicate the teachings  of  Jesus  to a people with a completely  different, pantheistic, polytheistic world view? How do you communicate with a people, that do not have an O.T. background?   

Well, the generation that we now deal with by and large has the same problem, even though many of them belong to churches.  Many  have no clue as to what the Bible is all about, or as to  who Jesus really is. For many, He has become simply an option among many gods. I  remember being at a function, where I spoke to a lady who is in the leadership of a particular church, and she told me that she believed that ultimately all religions led to God. The people in her group all agreed.  That is in effect  an  expression of  modern pantheism /polytheism.

How do you deal with people whose world views are shaped by the gods whom their imaginations and their hands have created?  Two responses: 

1.     Nothing but the sovereign grace of  God can open their eyes. If God does not open the eyes of the blind, the ears of the deaf, - in short, if the Holy Spirit does not do this work, they will  not hear  and they  will  continue to love the idols and thought systems  which they  have chosen. The heart wants what the heart wants, and until that heart is changed , the heart will continue in its cravings. 
2.    Having said that,  it does not mean that we  must sit still.   God has called His people, like Paul  to proclaim the Gospel  to the World, always praying  that the Holy Spirit would be pleased to work in application of that truth to the heart! (see Rom.10: 14,15). Paul passionately believes that the gospel must be presented - no matter how impossible the situation. Woe is me, if I do not preach the gospel!  And we shall see  what  the outcome will be in v.34. Some  shall believe! (v.34)

What Paul said to the people of Athens

Notwithstanding the  cultural and philosophical hindrances,  Paul pushes on and proceeds to construct a framework that explains who Jesus is. It is clear however that his presentation of the gospel to "biblical illiterates" cannot be done in the same way as to the Jews in the synagogue, and the God-fearing Greeks.  
These people  of the Areopagus had no idea what the 10 commandments were. They did not know who Moses was. They had a completely different view of history. They call him a "babbler" (v.18) lit. seedpicker i.e. an incoherent rambler. His presentation of the gospel was truly foolishness to the Greeks (1 Cor. 1:23).  So,  when they listened to Paul they  ridiculed his 'philosophy'. 
But he pushes on and he makes a very fundamental observation. 

He takes note of the fact that these people are very religious. In his wanderings in Athens he saw  an altar  built  to an unknown god (vv. 22,23), and  he seizes this  opportunity  to  connect  with them. What he is in fact saying is this : "Though you are religious, you seem to know very little about God. He is unknown to you. I will tell you about  this God that can be known , for He has disclosed Himself. I am going to proclaim Him to you!” 
Do you see that brilliant opening move? He finds something in their religious culture that links with his topic. He creates interest and proceeds to build his case. From here on he begins to proclaim the living and true God in 5 ways, exposing the  errors of  their idolatry. And he presents them with an ultimatum.

1. God is the Creator of the Universe (v. 24) : This is a very different view of the Epicureans, whose view of God was marginal.  It was in some ways  similar to the view of the Stoics who saw the gods as  removed and unsympathetic.  But here  Paul  instead introduces  God as  the CREATOR, who is personally involved His creation.  He is the Sovereign  God who  is above all, and it is therefore absurd to suppose that He would live in temples built by human hands.

2. God is the Sovereign and the Sustainer of life (v. 25) :  As Creator and Sovereign over  all He gives life and breath  and everything. Since he is such a being God cannot be manipulated or controlled. Moreover, He doesn't need men. He doesn't need their praise and their sacrifices to sustain Him. No! It is the other way round. Man needs God. Man needs to realise that for every breath  he takes, he  is sustained by  God.  Man depends on God; He does not depend on us.

3. God is the Ruler of all nations (vv. 26 - 28). He made from one man every nation  to live on all the face of the earth.  God made man.  Here we learn that every person is made in the image of God. God  is not a tribal deity. He is the God of the nations, whether they like it or not.They are therefore accountable to Him. His unseen hand either blesses in response to obedience, or is withdrawn, in response to disobedience - but  His presence is always there. "In Him we live and move and have our being". Even the Greek poets admitted that - even though that  fact was vaguely understood.

4. God is the Father of mankind (vv. 28,29) : "For we are indeed His offspring." Once again Paul quotes their poets with respect to a truth  with which  the Bible agrees. It is not as if there is no truth in humanity. There is general revelation of God's truth in all the religions of the world. But there is not sufficient revelation in any of  these religions to save mankind. Grace and truth are   only completely found in Christ (Jn. 1:17).  Are all people God's offspring?  Yes! All are  God’s  "fallen creation", and by His grace He sustains them even now. But that doesn't mean that they are all "saved". Being this personable, hands-on  involved God, He should also  not be conceived of in  terms  of  idolatrous man-made images. The essence of idolatry is that it tries to bring God under our control, which brings Paul to his last point:

5.God is the Judge of all men (vv.30,31):  Paul comes back to the point of ignorance in v. 23. The Athenians admitted by that altar inscription that they were ignorant of God. And Paul says  that  this being so , in the past  he overlooked such ignorance,not because He excused it, but because He was merciful. But now  people everywhere must repent! Why ?  Because Christ has died and has risen for the sins of those who are willing to believe in Him. The next step is that He will return as Judge - and then the question will be : What have you done with the Good News which I came to bring to you ? Have you ignored it? Paul tells his listeners three facts about that judgement: 
(a) it will be universal 
(b) it will be righteous 
(c) it will be definite.

RESPONSE: (vv. 32 - 34)

Some sneered - a few wanted to hear more -  and a few believed. What can we learn from Paul's preaching to a city full of idolatry? In our own city many people are rejecting the gospel, because they perceive it to be trivial. There are many who live by the Epicurean view  and others  by  the Stoic way.  
Whatever the case may be  our city  populated by so many  who think that they know it all, our  city, so  filled  with idolatry and  opinions needs to hear the gospel  of Jesus   in  understandable ways.  The people of our idolatrous city  need to hear that  God is not impersonal  and removed . He is the Creator, Sustainer, Ruler, Father of mankind,  and He is  the coming Judge. And He insists on repentance from idolatry. An idol is a god-substitute, and that invites God’s wrath.
By God's grace some in the city of Athens heard and responded.   Among them were  a man called  Dioynisus  and a  woman called Damaris,  and there were others.  Thank God that He gives  even people  in pagan  cultures the ability to hear  the voice of the Good Shepherd. Pray that this may be true of the city of Windhoek. Amen. 

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Genesis 19:1- 16 “SINNERS IN THE HANDS OF AN ANGRY GOD” (1)

Last time we saw in 18:1-16 that   God had visited Abraham in the form of His pre-incarnate Son, the Lord Jesus, in the company of two angels.  The first purpose of that visit was to announce the birth of a son to Abraham and Sarah. The second purpose was to announce the destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, for we are told that their sin was very grave (18:20). In 18: 22-33 we find Abraham interceding with the LORD for the people of these cities, presuming that there might be innocent people among them. For Abraham, who knows the character of God very well, it is unthinkable that God should destroy the righteous alongside the wicked (18:25). In keeping with His character God promises Abraham that He will not destroy the city, should He find 10 righteous people in it.

Today we come to that text in which the two angels who we find initially in the company of the LORD in Chapter 18, will now enter Sodom and there experience first-hand the wickedness of the entire city. And we shall see that they will not find  10  righteous   persons in that city. The exception will be Lot and his two daughters. We note that even Lot’s wife and his future sons- in law will perish in this terrible judgement on the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.

I have entitled this  message, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”, with apologies to Jonathan Edwards who preached a sermon with that title based on  a text  from Deut. 32:35, on July 8, 1741 in Enfield, Connecticut, with great effect.  This church had been largely unaffected during the Great Awakening of New England. Edwards was invited by the pastor of the church to preach to them. Edwards's aim was to teach his listeners about the horrors of hell, the dangers of sin and the terrors of being lost. Edwards described the shaky position of those who do not follow Christ's urgent call to receive His forgiveness. During his preaching Edwards was interrupted many times by people moaning, even fainting and crying out, "What shall I do to be saved?" In fact, God used that sermon on a number of occasions to awaken the New England community in the American colonies.    

We observe then that the two angels appear in Sodom.  Lot, sitting in the city gate, invites them to spend the night in his home, and like Abraham he offers them good hospitality. They wanted to stay in the town square, presumably to see what was going on in the city at night. But Lot pressed them strongly, and we have every reason to believe that Lot knew what  might happen to them, if they should stay in the town square that night.  The angels in the form of men, at his insistence  went  home with Lot. Then ,  we  read, that  the men of  the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last mansurrounded the house” and they called out to Lot, “Where are the men… bring them out  so that we may know them…” . That they might know them …intimately.   The intention here is clear. These men of the city wanted to sexually violate these messengers from God. They wanted to ‘sodomize’ them.  This text  forces  us  to deal with the issue of homosexuality, which together with the entire  LGBT movement  has  become  a critical  concern   for  many  thoughtful Christians.  

Is Homosexuality a sin?

There are a number of  biblical texts [1]  which teach  plainly  that  homosexuality  is a sin,  along with  a string of other  moral sins. We will restrict ourselves to one major OT and one major NT text.  In the OT, Leviticus 18:22-24 & 29   deals with a  number of unlawful sexual relations  (e.g.  sexual relations  with close relatives, adultery, bestiality) and among them gives a clear  warning  against homosexual behaviour. "You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a woman. It is an abomination.” (Lev.18: 22).

In the NT, in  Romans 1:18-32, the apostle  Paul  speaks about  the fact that  fallen mankind  is on a constant drive to exchange  God  the Creator  for  created things, ‘exchanging  the glory of the immortal God for images …’  (Rom 1:23). As a result we read that God gave  mankind  up (Rom. 1: 24,26,28) in the lusts of their heart to impurity, and what follows is a long list  of  these impurities,  which includes homosexual acts: “ 26 For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; 27 and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.” (Rom. 1:26,27)

Sexual immorality is one of the chief expressions of man’s rebellion against God and His design for mankind.  Homosexuality is the so called  'cherry on the top'  of it all. Homosexuality   goes even further  against   God’s created order.   Robert Gagnon, a leading scholar on sexuality in Scripture, says  that idolatry and same-sex intercourse equally oppose the designs of the Creator. He sees several strong connections that link Romans 1 to the creation account in Genesis 1–2. In his book ‘The Bible and Homosexual Practice’, Gagnon writes, "Idolatry and homosexual behavior are in some measure parallel (not just successive) phenomena since both are presented as wilful suppression of the obvious truth about God and God's design in the natural world."[2]

Now in our day there is a concerted effort to get us to accept that homosexuality is in fact  a normal way of life, as was the case in Sodom. 

Matthew Vines for instance, is a so called evangelical gay theologian. In an article in the New York Times (8th June 2014) he  engages  in a debate with Caleb Kaltenbach, pastor of Discovery Church in California,  a man  who was  raised by gay parents, but who  now is a conservative  pastor. 

On the Leviticus text he argues that, “ Christ fulfilled the Old Testament law, and the New Testament teaches that Christians should live under the new covenant rather than the old one. Consequently, this verse has never applied to Christians. For a man to lie with a man “as with a woman” violated the patriarchal gender norms of the ancient world, which is likely why Leviticus prohibited it. But the New Testament casts a vision of God’s kingdom in which the hierarchy between men and women is overcome in Christ. So not only is Leviticus’s prohibition inapplicable to Christians on its own, the rationale behind it doesn’t extend to Christians, either.” [3]  What Vines is basically doing here is saying that the OT was simply a cultural phenomenon and has nothing to say to modern Christianity. 

And with respect to the Romans passage, Vines says, “Paul is explicit that the same-sex behavior in this passage is motivated by lust…. Christians should continue to affirm with Paul that we shouldn’t engage in sexual behavior out of self-seeking lustfulness… that’s very different than same-sex marriages that are based on self-giving love…”[4] Vines is saying  that the  issue that Paul is addressing here is not  homosexuality  per se, but lustful relationships. He simply brushes aside God’s  creation purposes  in creating a man and a woman  for marriage and re-interprets the issue on  lustful relationships.  How is that?

There are many such attempts to confuse Christians  who are not used to careful thinking upon  these matters.  The fact is  that when   homosexuality becomes  normative in our society, a profound shift will have occurred, for it not only challenges the  biblical meaning and purpose of marriage, but it challenges  biblical morality  altogether. The plain meaning of Scripture  in this matter will be questioned. The biblical pulpit will become a dangerous place , as  pastors will be framed for hate speech, when they  in fact  stand up for what God says  is right.

The story  of Sodom  shows us  that  such a conditioning of society  had  taken place in ancient times.  According to the text all of the men had  begun to endorse this behaviour, and it did not end  with private homosexual relationships, but  in a public and very aggressive  way. The homosexual agenda progressively  conditions society  to accept gayness as  normative, but few are able to see that this system  will in fact become  aggressive  (we see  this happening  in modern societies)  and perhaps the most repressive  opponent of the Christian faith. 

And so we see that the men of Sodom were aggressively prepared to break the door down to Lot’s house. However they did not know with whom they had to do. The messengers of God struck them  with blindness (19:11), and that  was the beginning of the judgment on Sodom. 
But before they  would  destroy that city  they needed to evacuate  Lot’s family … sons-in law, daughters, and anyone  belonging to Lot’s family in the city  (19:12) ….”Get them out of here, because we are going to destroy this place. The outcry against this people has become so great before the LORD, that he has sent us to destroy it” (vv. 12&13).  

Lot’s behaviour in v. 8  by the way with respect to offering  his daughters to the mob, is inexcusable. It is clear that Lot lived in compromise. He was spiritually asleep.  His surroundings  had  corrupted and confused  him.  Bad company corrupts good character, though we have reason to believe that Lot did essentially cling to God’s Word.  Weak believers are found at all times in the world. They know what is right, but they are too weak in their knowledge and therefore in their willpower to effectively resist what is coming at them. There is a  difference between an Abraham and Lot.  Abraham had to carry Lot many times!

Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God

So the wickedness of these cities on the plains from  the perspective of where Abraham lived was well known. There were righteous people that had prayed concerning this, and their  outcry had come to the Lord’s attention (18:20; 19:13). And God was not reacting in a knee-jerk fashion. God had been patient with this people for a long time.  
We may safely assume that they had been warned. 
We may be certain that Lot would have warned these people, for how else could Peter   write these things about him in 2 Peter 2:7,8  concerning,  “righteous Lot, greatly distressed by the sensual conduct of the wicked (for as a righteous man he lived among  them day after day, he was tormenting his righteous soul  over their lawless deeds that he saw and heard)”.  

The two earlier judgments in Genesis were preceded by warnings. Adam and Eve were warned by God not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  The people in Noah’s generation were warned by Noah.[5] 
God has given everyone in Sodom a conscience, just like everyone in Windhoek. The law of God is written upon the hearts of every man and woman and child in this world (Rom. 2:14,15).   

“So Lot went out…” (19:14). Thank God for His Messengers! Without their message of warning Lot would have perished with the rest. He warned his extended family, including his prospective sons-in-law, who thought that this is a joke (19:14).  And as morning dawns the angels urge Lot, his wife and 2 daughters (by now the prospective sons- in law are not listening)   to hurry out of the city of destruction (19:15).  “But he lingered” (19:16a)!  It’s hard to leave people behind that won’t listen … particularly the members of your own family!   “So the men seized him and his wife and his two daughters by the hand, the LORD being merciful to him, and they brought him out and set him outside the city “(19:16b).  

SINNERS IN THE HANDS OF A MERCIFUL GOD

The LORD Jesus Christ came to live in this world – our Sodom. He came to see how men and women behave. The place was so bad that He wept over it. “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem!” This world hated him so much that it killed him.  But God, who is rich in mercy had designed that his death was not going to be simply a murder by evil men. God turned this death into an atoning sacrifice, along with an invitation to pardon the sins of all who look to Him and believe in Him (Jn. 3:16). The lesson is plain.  Flee from your Sodom. Like Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress, flee from the city of destruction. 
Where do you flee to? 
Flee to Jesus. 
He is your Way, your Truth, your Life (Jn. 14:6). By Him alone you will escape the coming wrath. Remember, that Jesus has warned you about the coming Judgement (Matt. 24,25). And remember that the Judgement will be sudden and unexpected. 
Many think that this is a joke! Flee to Jesus!  He is the narrow gate (Matt. 7:13,14), the door (Jn. 10:7) to your Father who is in Heaven. Do not hesitate! Do not linger! Do not say, ‘Tomorrow’, because that day never comes. Today if you will hear his voice, harden not your hearts. (Hebr. 3:7,15; 4:7).  
Otherwise you will be a sinner in the hand of an angry God.



[1] Key Texts in the Old Testament: Lev. 18:22, 29; 20:13; Gen.19 ;  Key Texts in the New Testament: Rom. 1:26-27;  1 Cor. 6:9; 1 Tim.1:10; Jude 7.
[4] ibid
[5] Genesis 2:16,17 ;  2 Peter 2:5 tells us Noah was a preacher of righteousness“…and did not spare  the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a preacher of righteousness, with seven others, when He brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly;   Knowing that Noah was a preacher proclaiming God's truth in some form to the people of his day and given his godly character, we can assume Noah preached about the approaching flood and the need to repent. Offering the world such a warning would be in keeping with God's character, since God typically gives opportunity for repentance prior to His judgments.